By Jeremy Hance
"After a long conversation with the FBI I have decided to temporarily suspend my activity on this page. I want to thank all of you who have commented [on] this important issue of Black Rhino Conservation." – Corey Knowlton, Feb 3, 2014.
This was the last post on Corey Knowlton's Facebook page. Knowlton is the hunter who won the Dallas Safari Club auction on January 11th to kill a Critically Endangered black rhino. All the money—$350,000—will go to a fund to protect rhinos. The plan is that sometime soon—once the paperwork clears the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—Knowlton will go to Namibia on a "trophy hunt" (accompanied by a park service official), shoot the designated rhino, and bring the old bull's hide back home to Texas.
But Knowlton says he was unprepared for the vitriol he received after his name was leaked on the Internet. After all, he insists he is only trying to do a good thing for conservation, and he has the backing of the biggest and most well-known international players in conservation including the WWF, IUCN, the Namibian government, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International, and Save the Rhino.
Knowlton's story is important to freeze-frame because it spotlights an important ongoing debate among those who don't want to see big charismatic species go extinct: is it good policy to allow trophy hunters to shoot endangered species if the money goes to conservation? Or is it fatally flawed from an ethical point of view? Does it actually work for the benefit of species and local communities? When this rhino is killed and if the trophy hide is imported back to the U.S., who, besides Corey Knowlton, is to be blamed (or thanked)?
"I had no idea it would be this visceral," Knowlton told Piers Morgan in Las Vegas on CNN in January, regarding the backlash he's experienced. It has been so intense that Knowlton claims he hired private security to protect his family, with the FBI currently investigating numerous death threats and hacktivist plots.
"The Las Vegas Swat team is on alert. I have security going everywhere I go, that's the hate that I'm dealing with," Knowlton said on CNN. In offering Morgan an example of the types of threats he, his wife, and two daughters have received, he said "[they\ want to kill us all and burn us and make a Saw movie out of us, these are the type of things that I'm getting."
The fierce controversy over the rhino hunt went viral when Knowlton decided to go public, defending what's been dubbed a policy of "killing in the name of conservation."
Supporters say it's just one rhino identified by Namibian wildlife management officials—an old mean one that is going to die soon anyway. But most importantly, 100% of the profits will go to Namibia's rhino conservation efforts, which remain among the strongest in the world. The country is home to a total of 1,750 South Western black rhinos and has suffered few poaching events as opposed to many of its neighbors.
Still, animal rights groups and many individuals are furious.
Interestingly, after the leak, Knowlton's Facebook page exploded, becoming an impromptu platform for the debate between hunters, conservationists, and animal rights advocates. Instead of hiding from the heat, Knowlton encouraged the debate-- which he fed several times each day through the offering provocative images, questions, or links. For example, on January 22nd, Knowlton directed his readers' attention to a passage from conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 book, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter.
"In a civilized and cultivated country wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen," Roosevelt wrote. "The excellent people who protest against all hunting, and consider sportsmen as enemies of wild life, are ignorant of the fact that in reality the genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping the larger and more valuable wild creatures from total extermination."
Knowlton said he's motivated by a similar desire to help conservation, telling CNN, "it's not an egotistical thing, it's a belief in conservation from me." Adding, "I'm a member of a group of people who care enough to put their money where their mouth is."
Defending his love of hunting, he told WFAA news in Texas, "I want to be intimately involved with a black rhino. If I go over there and shoot it or not shoot it, it's beyond the point."
In several interviews he explained how hunting connected generations of his family. He told Piers Morgan of growing up poor but looking forward to hunting trips with his father and grandfather: "we looked at hunting as a celebration and a comradery together, as a special time together."
On his Facebook page, Knowlton also echoed a point given by some conservation researchers that ecotourism can actually be worse for endangered species and their habitats than trophy hunting due to the negative impacts of tourist-required infrastructure. To prove this Knowlton posted an image of a lioness surrounded by a horde of picture-taking tourists under which he remarked, "I am not bashing Eco Tourism at all but this seems excessive. This is from the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya."
Under each of his post hundreds—sometimes over a thousand—comments would be posted in reply to Knowlton and to one another. Those opposed see in Knowlton a poster boy for hunters as "soulless cold zombies" for the moral and ethical lapses of those who say they care about endangered species but support trophy hunting, and for the excesses of rich, white men who travel the globe killing endangered animals for sport.
Media Pile On
The controversy provoked responses from cultural icons as well. Bob Barker, host of the TV Show "The Price is Right" weighed in with a letter distributed by PETA.
"What kind of message does it send when we put a $1 million bounty on one of their heads? These animals are endangered for that very reason: money. What makes you any better than the poachers who kill rhinos to feed their families? At least, they are honest about their less noble motives. You try to dress up greed under the guise of conservation," Barker wrote. "True conservationists are those who pay money to keep rhinos alive—in the form of highly lucrative eco-tourism—as opposed to those who pay money for the cheap thrill of taking this magnificent animal's life and putting his head on a wall."
Comedian and commentator, Steven Colbert, said in October of the hunt, "The Dallas Safari Club says they will save the black rhino by auctioning off the chance to shoot one. It's like the old saying: If you love something set it free; then when it has a bit of a head start, open fire."
The hacktivist group Anonymous did more than talk. Using the issue to launch a cyber-attack, the group crashed the Namibian government's website and the website for the Dallas Safari Club.
"Like those who act against animals without mercy, we will show no mercy to you. It is time to hunt the hunters!" Anonymous said in a press release. "For a long time now we have been watching with horror, the cruelty that some members of the human race seem capable of inflicting upon animals. [...\ Unspeakable and terrible things happen every second of every day while the whole planet is forced to watch, as these cold hearted soulless zombies cause horrific suffering and death to animals, both common, vulnerable and critically endangered species. The time has come for Anonymous to stand united against such acts. This is not a threat. This is a promise! We are the new face of animal rights".
In response to Anonymous' cyber-attacks, Namibia's Deputy Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, said the hunt was perfectly legal. He added that they would stick by their program, because it brought in revenue for conservation.
"They should also know that with our rhino population, harvesting is part of our program," he said.
International conservation groups have also stood by the Namibian government and the hunt.
Louis Riboh started a petition on justgiving.com to "outbid the hunter." After collecting funds, he planned to send them to Save the Rhino so the group could outbid hunters. However he was told by Katherine Ellis, Office and Communications Manager, "Save the Rhino is not opposed to the Dallas Auction, so we would not be prepared to launch a campaign to purchase the permit." The money was returned to donors.
"There has been a wide range of reaction," Executive Director of the Dallas Safari Club, Ben Carter, told the Washington Post.
"There's a lot of people out there, frankly, that are totally without any knowledge of how wildlife and conservation works. We've gotten e-mails, phone calls. One e-mail said, 'If you auction off a permit to kill a rhino, we are going to kill you and your family.'"
Knowlton also framed the debate as a divide between passionate hunters and pragmatic conservation groups on one side and misguided, emotional animal rights activists and sympathizers on the other.
"Animal Rights, please educate yourselves before you save these animals to death (some of you want these animals to go extinct rather than to be under human management) and that's a real tragedy," he posted on January 1st.
But is Knowlton correct when he makes such a division, characterizing those who oppose the trophy hunt as bad for conservation?
The situation for rhinos is definitely dire. According to Save the Rhino there are currently an estimated 5,000 rhinos in Africa down from 65,000 individuals in 1970. Ninety five percent of the black rhino population was lost to poachers between 1960 and 1995, a trend that is on the rise again on as rhino horn is currently more valuable per ounce than gold. Rhino horns can be sold on the international black market for anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000. So isn't every rhino valuable, indeed irreplaceable?
Moral and Ethical Problems
A commenter on Knowlton's Facebook page wrote, "Murdering endangered animals is wrong...You should burn in hell." Another adds, "You are a disgrace to the human race." These types of comments highlight a perspective that killing in the name of conservation is not only bad policy, but ethically flawed.
"The entire idea is shameful, and it is a disgrace," wrote Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle last November. He adds that the latest hunt sets " a very dangerous precedent," writing provocatively that "we have to wonder whether the federal government will start issuing permits for trophies of other critically endangered species, such as the cheetah, just because American hunters desire their heads and hides as wall hangings. Where will this stop?"
He adds that "groups like [Humane Society International\ are putting money into rhino protection—in the range states and in the states where rhino horn is sold, and we aren't demanding an opportunity to shoot, capture, snare, terrorize, or baste a rhino. We just want them to live unmolested, protected from human harm and spared from sacrifice for any purpose—spiritual or material."
Such perspectives are generally shared by other animal rights groups including the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"Killing animals to save them is not only counterintuitive but ludicrous…We're talking a highly endangered species, and generating a furor to kill them in the name of conservation is not going to do anything to help them in the long run," said Jeff Flocken the North American director for the IFAW.
Contrary to Knowlton, Flocken makes the claim that such trophy hunts aren't as good for wildlife as photo safaris.
"The value of photographic and wildlife-viewing safaris far outweighs the value of trophy hunting."
But if this is so, why are some major conservation groups still supporting Knowlton and his bid to shoot dead a black rhino? More....